Propping up the paper tiger: How the West creates the self-fulfilling prophecy of militant Iran

We are failing to take advantage of internal dissatisfaction of many young people who are sick of the corruption, hypocrisy and abuse of power.

A VIEW shows buildings under construction in Tehran in January. Iran has deep economic problems. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VIEW shows buildings under construction in Tehran in January. Iran has deep economic problems.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
How would the West have conducted itself during the Cold War had it known in 1945, 1970 or even 1985 what we know now – that the Soviet Union was a paper tiger that disguised internal weakness and defense shortcomings with extravagant expenditures on the arms race, aggressive posturing and obsessive focus on propaganda abroad? While we may never know for sure, we could have avoided a number of critical situations, could have developed a longer-term strategy for taking down our adversary and invested our resources differently. Today, we are facing a similar situation in confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran – and it is not a coincidence that this regime has been particularly close to the Soviet Union and learned a great deal from its communist counterparts, both in terms of intelligence methodology, vast surveillance state, massive propaganda machine, political manipulation and the art of throwing dust in the eyes of stronger, better positioned opponents.
The West has ignored the easily verifiable fact that Iran is just another paper tiger – and that its strength largely comes from rhetoric, bluff (not uncommon to culture in that part of the world) and taking advantage of Western fears. Just as the Soviet Union invested heavily in arms and space innovation at the expense of providing common necessities for its population, Iran has been spending what little money was coming into the country after years of sanctions on nuclear technology development, assorted terrorist groups and militias and active involvement in foreign countries.
As a result, its economy is actually in tatters. Recent analyses question the wisdom of investing in Iran, which may not be able to sustain development even with the released income from the sanctions. Much of Iran’s fearsome image comes from social engineering, in other words, lies and manipulation. Many portions of Iran’s population, such as Al-Ahwaz and Baluchistan, live in poverty. Though the country has the highest rate of executions, including for drug-related offenses, Iran tacitly encourages drug addiction among ethnic minorities, such as Kurds and Baluchis. The population in central cities, though it has access to somewhat better resources, suffers from a high unemployment rate. This Friday’s low election turnout is strong evidence of a general dissatisfaction with the government. A state that has no support from most of its population, even with all the censorship, propaganda and disinformation campaigns, is not a strong state. In fact, Iran is faring much worse by comparison to Russia, which practices similarly authoritarian tactics and suffers from similar deficiencies, yet retains an approval rating of 86% or above for its president. Our villainous adversary is a naked emperor. Had it not been for the Western unwillingness to strengthen the liberal dissidents and minorities at the expense of Reformists, many of these issues could have been resolved a long time ago.
In 2012, the United States put the kibosh on Israel’s plans of carrying out an air-strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Likewise, Iran’s continuous sponsorship of terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, which engaged in attacks against Western targets on multiple occasions, remained constant. It became clear that the mullahs and their IRGC minions were willing to sacrifice the standard of living of their citizens in order to fund Shi’ite militias in the Middle East and intelligence operations in the West. The spread of Hezbollah cells all over South America, Iran’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, for Houthis in Yemen and terrorist Shi’ite cells in Bahrain revealed the Islamic Republic’s bellicose intentions. Yet, its army remained in poor condition, its air force was largely nonexistent.
Iran was a threat that could have been defunded, sanctioned and derailed out of existence. Yet the United Nations welcomed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to give obnoxious speeches, and Columbia University welcomed his vitriolic outpourings to an overflowing room of spectators. Shameless propaganda by Iran’s cultural propagandists, mostly belonging to the nefarious “Reformist” Khatami-Rafsanjani faction, was welcomed and swallowed bait, hook and sinker by Western academia, media and the film industries. Most of Iran’s filmmakers are Reformists who do not speak out against human rights violations or Iran’s support of terrorism and aggressive military agenda but work hard to make Westerners believe that things would become less terrible should the “moderates” come to power. The same moderates suppressed the voices of any true opposition, and in fact, on the disinformation level, did as much damage as Iran’s support for terrorism did on the military front. The West chose to ignore the plight of dissidents in 2009. As we now know, President Barack Obama did not wish to aggravate his alleged allies in this quest for normalization with Iran.
As a result of our engagement with the noxious regime for the past seven years, we are at a juncture when we are implementing a disfavorable deal out of a position of weakness. The deal has already been violated by the regime parading missiles in front of cameras.
Iran offered to aid Palestinian suicide bombers recently. All with nary a reaction from the West. After all, the sanctions have been released, the US prisoners exchanged. What more can we ask for? We have a paper tiger on our hands, but it is a paper tiger that we are voluntarily propping up and arming. We are feeding this tiger with the lifting of the sanctions, with the individualized destigmatization of figures like Qassem Soleimani, acceptance of the so-called elections and eagerness to invest in a country that has yet to apologize for the hostage-taking at the US Embassy in 1979, and where public figures shout “Death to America” on a daily basis. Our enemy is weak; it cannot operate in complete isolation.
We are failing to take advantage of internal dissatisfaction of many young people who are sick of the corruption, hypocrisy and abuse of power.
Yet instead of showing brutal, swift intolerance to unconscionable behavior that violates all standards expected of civilized nations, we not only accept it, but excuse, justify and reward it. We have only ourselves to blame for the monster we are helping to create – out of the best of intentions, or so we tell ourselves.
The author is a New York based attorney, whose focus is on assisting human rights defenders, liberal democratic dissidents, and persecuted minorities, and who frequently writes about security issues, human rights, international affairs, and geopolitics.